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Will huge premium increases ever stop? MedCity Morning Read, Feb. 19, 2010

A new report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services brings the issue of skyrocketing premiums back into focus. In a little bit of vindication for the company, it seems Wellpoint’s rapidly rising premiums in California aren’t so strange after all. Similar pressure on premiums is happening in at least six other states, HHS says.

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Highlights of the important and the interesting from the world of health care:

Will huge premium increases ever stop? Probably not, but for health-reform advocates, chatter about ever-rising health insurance premiums figures to be the best P.R. they could imagine. It started earlier this month with Wellpoint’s California subsidiary announcing that it was planning to increase premiums for some customers by as much as 39 percent. (The company later agreed under intense public pressure to postpone the hikes.) Now, however, a new report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services brings the issue of rising premiums back into focus. In a little bit of vindication for the company, it seems Wellpoint’s rapidly rising premiums in California aren’t so strange after all. Similar pressure on premiums is happening in at least six other states, HHS says.

In Maine, Anthem is requesting a 23 percent increase. Likewise, in Michigan, Blue Cross is looking to raise premiums for some customers by 56 percent. To be clear, these huge increases would affect only the individual market, which includes about 9 percent of Americans, the AP reports. Still, the situation highlights exactly how imperfect in economic terms that market for health care is, as Health Populi points out, and thus why it needs government regulation. For health insurers, the danger is that these rate increases–even if they are at least somewhat justified for business reasons–galvanize the public against them. Though it would take decades to happen, constantly rising premiums could push an angry public onto the slippery slope that ends in a single-payer, Medicare-for-all system, which would be health insurers’ worst nightmare.

GE Healthcare drops libel suit against scientist: So now GE Healthcare says it welcomes “principled debate” about safety issues, the Guardian reports. Maybe the company just forgot that when it sued a Danish radiologist for his 2007 comments at a medical conference about a GE contrast agent called Omniscan, which is injected into patients so their tissues show up better during MRI scans. Radiologist Henrik Thomsen tried to engage in a little principled debate of his when he criticized the drug, which contains (wait for it) a toxic metal called gadolinium. Now, as luck would have it, use of the drug is outlawed for patients with previously malfunctioning kidneys, after hundreds of them developed permanently crippling side-effects from a condition called NSF.

Maybe that put GE in the mood for some spirited and principled debate. Terms of Thomsen’s settlement with GE weren’t made public.

Sneaky pharma marketing tactics: Pharma Marketing Blog runs down four “sneaky” marketing tactics employed by Big Pharma firms. Tops on the list is “astro-turfing,” which refers to corporate-backed lobbying organizations that purport to be grassroots, consumer-driven movements. Blogger John Mack cites GlaxoSmithKline as a violator of this principle. Other tactics include spamming and exaggerating the reach of diseases. Also notable is “anonymous tidying,” or marketers posing as consumers on social media sites, plus altering wikipedia entries on drug information.

Health reform showing signs of life: Don’t bury health reform yet, The Plum Line reports. It appears that the White House is attempting to moderate a bill that would overcome differences between the Senate and House, paving the way for a united front at the much-hyped health summit next week. More importantly, Democrats may finally be willing to use reconciliation to pass the bill in the Senate. From a primer on what reconciliation is, click the link in this sentence. The most important thing to know about it, in spite of what health reform opponents will tell you, is that reconciliation is not at all an unusual step or a bending of Senate rules. It’s how the Senate passed tax cuts for the wealthy in 2001 and another tax bill in 2003, and yet another in 2005, in fact.